When Bill Lee drove a tractor through tiny Eagleville last October, hardly anyone noticed.
Only a handful of supporters milled around in the parking lot of the Farmers Co-op in southwest Rutherford County that morning where Lee spent a few minutes talking to people inside the store before emerging to ride to another town as part of a statewide tour, a precursor to an RV ride he would take later in the Republican primary race.
Ten months ago, Lee began to sow the seeds for his gubernatorial campaign, characterizing himself as a conservative political outsider who could bring his faith and business sense and a rural background to the governor’s office.
Likewise, when Democratic gubernatorial candidate Karl Dean lunched with African-American pastors and community leaders at Jeff’s Family Friendly Restaurant in Murfreesboro in July 2017, he was just beginning to build the support network he would need to gain the party’s nomination and launch a serious run in the Nov. 2 election.
More than a year ago, Dean said he was taking “nothing for granted.”
But while Dean was heavily favored over House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh and defeated him handily in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary, capturing 75 percent of the vote, Lee didn’t reap the fruit of his work until the final weeks of campaigning to overtake heavy favorites Diane Black and Randy Boyd, and securing nearly 37 percent of the vote, a strong finish over Boyd’s 24 percent and Black’s 23 percent.
Rhodes College political science professor Michael Nelson attributes Lee’s victory to three factors and says the governor’s race is likely his to lose as November approaches.
First, Nelson says, Lee spent the money he needed to gain name recognition (raising $8.5 million and spending $7 million with $5.2 million in self-endorsed loans) and positioned himself as a successful businessman who’d never held political office, banking on Republican voters’ view of “government as a mess and politics as a sullied enterprise,” sort of the same idea that vaulted Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016.
“The third thing was, and this is kind of a classic phenomenon, the two front-runners, Boyd and Black, aimed their firepower at each other and essentially took each other out, and the third candidate, Bill Lee, was kind of the one left standing,” Nelson says.
“In a three-candidate race, this is structurally the best thing that can happen to you, if you’re running third.”
Lee didn’t get mired in the quicksand of policy, either, though he answered all the questions, instead relying largely on his life story: one in which he depended on faith to pull him out of a funk when his first wife died in a horse-riding accident.
All of the Republican candidates touched on their faith.
“But the truth is he was able to talk about issues of faith and talk about his own commitment to his faith in a way that was authentically grounded in the experience of his own life. And that really connected,” Nelson continues.
MTSU political scientist Kent Syler takes a similar view, at least on Lee’s presentation.
“(Lee) was the best communicator among the candidates and, I think, came across in his ads as the candidate who was most genuine and most comfortable in their own skin,” Syler points out.
While Lee didn’t spend nearly as much money as Boyd or Black, with total spending topping $51 million, Syler says he believes Lee found a market as “an alternative” to Black, who had the most name recognition early in the race but also the highest negative numbers, which forced her to put out a late TV ad of her cooking popcorn for grandchildren.
Boyd tried to fill the “void” created by Black’s negative numbers, but Lee “became the consensus alternative and gained momentum at the right time,” Syler adds.
Syler doesn’t buy the notion Lee won because he refused to get into mud-slinging fight with Black and Boyd.
In fact, he says Lee played it smart, putting together a TV ad in which he called out his primary attackers and questioned the leadership ability of someone who spent most of their time on the attack.
“While Lee’s response was seemingly positive, it was really a well-crafted, anti-negative negative,” Syler says, one the voters considered “totally justified.”
University of Memphis political science professor Michael Sances points toward a poll that came out toward the end of the primary showing Lee with the lead. He played on that in his ads, contending Black and Boyd were attacking him because he was winning.
Ultimately, Sances notes, Lee’s victory shows a pattern in Tennessee for exactly who can win statewide races.
He points toward Republicans Bill Haslam, Bob Corker and even Lamar Alexander as examples of Tennessee’s favorable view of more moderate political leaders.
“Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat we really have this pragmatic centrist streak here,” Sances explains.
Lee’s win might have been accidental to a degree in that he was the last one standing, “but I think he just sort of fell into the mold of what the state Republican primary electorate was looking for,” Sances says.
They also liked the idea of selecting someone for the general election who could beat Dean, “who can market himself as a centrist,” Sances adds.
But while Lee might be viewed by some as a centrist, at least in the narrow definition wrought in the primary, he consistently called himself a “conservative.”
And based on his opposition to Medicaid expansion and the IMPROVE Act with its 6-cent gas tax increase, he runs converse to Gov. Bill Haslam.
In fact, he gained the endorsements of tea party types or non-establishment Republicans such as former state Rep. Joe Carr and former state Sen. Mae Beavers in the waning days of the Republican primary.
While both of them were trounced in their last election efforts, they still carry considerable weight among ultra-conservatives and might have given Lee the boost he needed to break the tape.
Where to from here?
In a state President Trump captured with more than 60 percent of the vote in 2016, Democrat Dean will be hard-pressed to overcome Lee’s likeability in the Bible Belt where people identify with his redemption story.
The two-term Nashville mayor will market himself as a pragmatist, someone capable of handling city chores such as trash collection without getting tied into partisanship.
“Karl Dean understands in order for a Democrat to win in Tennessee, you’ve gotta break out of the urban areas,” Syler says.
Dean’s campaign talks about the “forgotten Tennessee,” rural areas where jobs haven’t returned after industries such as apparel factories left in the ’80s and ’90s and points toward his experience in guiding Nashville.
Dean will sell a vision based on his mayoral experience, while Lee, with no political experience, will sell his personal story and business leadership of the Lee Co., as well as articulating a vision, Syler points out.
“It’s going to be an interesting race, and one of the candidates along with the way will need a break,” Syler says. “You’ve got to say that certainly coming out of a crowded primary and spending a lot more money to introduce himself to voters that Bill Lee probably has an early lead and Karl Dean is going to have to work hard to catch him.”
(Dean raised $5.4 million and spent $4.3 million but put no personal loans into his campaign. He has $1.04 million in the bank compared to $1.45 million for Lee.)
While their finances are similar going into the general race, a phone poll conducted by Gravis Marketing shows Lee with an 11-point lead over Dean, according to “The Tennessee Journal.’’
Nelson also gives Lee the edge early in the race because Tennessee is the reddest state in the Southeast besides Alabama, based on Trump’s election numbers.
Dean has as good a chance to win as any Democrat, Nelson says.
“But I don’t think Dean can win it,” Nelson notes. “I think Lee could conceivably lose it.”
More than likely, though, it would take an egregious rookie error, he adds.
The wild card, of course, is President Trump, and whether he’s as popular in Tennessee this November as he is in August will be a factor, Syler points out. Trump has endorsed Lee already, even if the Tennessee candidate didn’t fall all over himself courting the president during the primary.
With Trump, however, it’s not a case of same bat time, same bat channel. His favorability changes from day to day or tweet to tweet.
Dean is not oblivious to the harsh reality of running as a Democrat in Tennessee.
Not only does he have to win his own Democrats and independent voters, he acknowledges he has to pick up moderate Republicans, many of whom supported him in Nashville, and let them know he’ll represent them too.
“You’ve gotta broaden the base,” Dean says during an interview at his Nashville headquarters. “As a Democrat, you acknowledge you’ve got less than 50 percent of the vote going into it just by party identification, and you’ve got to build the party.
“I think what I’ve tried to do is be the candidate who’s pragmatic, common sense, get it done, has a record of managing things, and hopefully that has the appeal that goes across party lines.”
Lee won’t have to cross party lines to win voters. He probably won’t have to get caught up in policy, either. And there are clear differences between the two: Dean would expand Medicaid; Lee wouldn’t under Obamacare.
As the two embark on tours across Tennessee’s 95 counties, Dean is eager to hold town-hall meetings together, go to African-American churches and debate issues.
Lee isn’t exactly aching to travel the same roads, at least not together, preferring instead to take a message of good jobs, good schools and safe neighborhoods to voters on his own.
No doubt, he’ll have more people listening than he did in October 2017 at the Eagleville Farmers Co-op.
And Dean will speak to larger crowds too. But can he overcome Lee’s meteoric rise in a red state?
After all, it took a semi-political miracle for Lee to win the primary.
Based on the punditry, the Democratic candidate might have to find the same magic, turning water to wine in order to win.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News, Nashville Ledger, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com.